Ron Natinsky Can't Figure Out How He Became the Bad Guy in City's Legal Fight to Evict Museum of American Railway From Fair Park

Dallas city council member Ron Natinsky says, sure, he was "a little PO'd" to read last night that he was being portrayed as the bad guy in the city's legal dust-up with the Museum of the American Railroad at Fair Park. Because, see, Natinsky's a train guy -- has "1,200 feet of track in my backyard," matter of fact, not to mention a model perched near his City Hall office window. Which is nothing, he says, compared to the battle he waged on behalf of the museum to keep it at Fair Park several years ago -- against, he says, the wishes of then-council member Leo Chaney, who couldn't understand why Natinsky fought at the last second to include $2.75 million in the 2006 bond package to move and expand the museum next to its current location off Perry Avenue.

Natinsky invited Unfair Park to his office this morning to see the proposed plans for the museum -- that's just one piece of it above (and click the photo for a larger version), and you'll find several more pages' worth of docs after the jump. The plan would have allowed the museum to swap property with the State Fair of Texas, and it would have involved expanding the museum over a period of time -- until, at last, it would have been Dallas's version of Steamtown in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

"I kinda had in my mind, we could have a world-renowned tourist attraction here at the fair and bring people to Fair Park," Natinsky said today. That, clearly, was not meant to be.

He also wanted to present his side of the story, since museum CEO Bob LaPrelle and board chairman Tom Smith took their shots yesterday, shortly after the city filed its suit demanding former Age of Steam move to Frisco by August 1.

"If anybody could be considered best friends of the museum, it'd be me," Natinsky told Unfair Park this morning. And then he proceeded to explain why.

"When we started working on the '06 bond package, don't ask me how, but somehow I was introduced to Bob LaPrelle and the problems the museum had had," Natinsky said at the beginning of what became a 20-minute monologue during which Unfair Park managed to get in a few questions.

"I was very familiar with the fact they were talking about moving to the West End at one point, moving out of the city, moving here, moving there. I've always a soft spot in my heart for Fair Park, and I also like the museum. It's cramped, it's small, but I had some vision there was a future, there was an opportunity, here. So I had some conversations with them, and we said, 'Look, we're tired of wondering: Are you leaving? Are you staying? What if we put something together in the bond program to make you a new home, make you comfortable, get a commitment out of you that you're staying and put the issue to bed? I think you're good for Fair Park in the long term.'

"Fast-forward along, we have a bunch of meetings, and we come up with a proposal, and I championed the idea of putting $2.75 million into the bond program specifically earmarked for their moving to a new location in the park, the expansion and future home of the Museum of the American Railroad, which was then the Age of Steam. I don't mind telling you I was sort of the Lone Ranger. At the time, Mr. Chaney had that district down there, and he said, 'Why would we put all this money into this, but, Natinsky, if you think it's a good deal, I'll go along with it.'

"So I sold it to my colleagues. We put it in the bond program. It was matching money. We had some very frank and upfront conversations about the museum: 'You have a commitment to raise the other half. You raise $2.75 [million], we'll give you $2.75 [million], and then you've got $5.5 million.' They said, 'No problem, Mr. Natinsky, we're committed to it, everything's a go.'"

Natinsky says at that point, LaPrelle committed to staying at Fair Park. Shortly after that, the bond program passed ... and then, nothing. Natinsky says it was a year later that, during a "casual conversation" with museum officials, he asked how their fund-raising efforts were coming.

"And I didn't really get a good answer," he says. "Except, 'We didn't raise any money.'"

At which point Natinsky says he warned LaPrelle to start "hustling" to raise the dough, lest the city lose interest and reallocate that $2.75 million to another project within Fair Park. "I was trying to light a fire under them," he says.

"And then, all of the sudden, we start hearing through the rumor mill that they're talking to the city of Frisco about moving the museum," Natinsky says. "So I called Bob and said, 'Hey, I'm your buddy, I'm the guy who got you $2.75 million in the bond program. I'm the guy who worked with the park department and everybody to come up with a plan to get you a great museum, and I've got a funny feeling you're about to knife me in the back. Is it true? And he said, 'Well, it's not really true. Well, it might be true. Yeah, somebody mentioned we ought to talk to Frisco.'

"And I said, 'What's going on? We all sat around the table and made a deal.' And he said, 'Well, we have to look out for what's best for the railroad.'"

I asked Natinsky if LaPrelle explained to him why a move to Frisco would be a better deal than what the city of Dallas offered. "I'll get to that," the council member said before continuing.

"No. 1, I didn't know the money part till yesterday," he said, referring to the $1 million Frisco promised the museum to facilitate its departure from Fair Park. "They refused to tell us what the deal was. It was all about, 'They'll give us more space.' There was nothing they could put their finger on, except, 'They're going to give us a larger chunk of land.' And I said, 'We gave you the land you wanted. You drew your tracks on there. You drew your buildings on there.' There was never any debate about, 'Gee whiz, Ron, I need another two acres.' We so-called shook hands on it."

At which point, Natinsky says, museum officials told him, well, the deal with the city wasn't formal or final. To which Natinsky responded: "We need to know. We've got money in the bond program, and we're reorienting that part of Fair Park based on the museum being there, and now you're moving to Frisco?"

This went on for months -- till April 2008, when the museum announced it had indeed signed an agreement with Frisco to move north. Which didn't sit well with the city: Not only had Natinsky been involved with moving the train museum to another piece of Fair Park, but so too had City Manager Mary Suhn, Park and Rec director Paul Dyer and assistant director Willis Winters, Fair Park general manager Daniel Huerta and State Fair of Texas president Errol McKoy, who had agreed to the land swap that would have allowed the museum to move to a nearby piece of land owned by the State Fair of Texas. Natinsky is quick to point out that, to this point, "No attorneys were involved."

When LaPrelle told the city the museum was moving, Dallas officials wondered only one thing: When? Natinsky said he was never given a firm answer, which didn't sit well with him -- because, after all, the museum's deal with the city involved swapping land with the State Fair, which has long wanted the museum's piece of Fair Park to stage an extension of its auto-show display. ("And it's not for a parking lot," Natinsky said.) In fact, Natinsky told Unfair Park, McKoy and State Fair officials had "run the numbers" and guesstimated the State Fair could make an additional "$350,000 to $500,000" renting that piece of Fair Park to auto manufacturers during the fair. And the longer the museum stayed, the more it cost the State Fair.

Initially, the city tried to get an agreement with the museum in August 2008 in order to get it off the property by August 1, 2009, for the State Fair, which wanted to begin selling the space. But city officials knew that was unreasonable given the 4,500 tons of trains that need to be moved. And so they set August 1, 2010, as the drop-dead date.

At which point, Natinsky said, the city realized it had a problem: It had no lease with the museum -- and never had during its more than four decades at Fair Park.

"Bad on us, we didn't have them sign anything at that time," Natinsky said. "And what I've been told is, every time we'd try to negotiate a lease, they'd give us some story about the new board, and this and that, and to be honest, our staff was lax, and we let them stay there. And we didn't make them sign anything when I negotiated the deal for the bond program. Like I say, bad on us. We should have."

Which is how, in the end, it came to a lawsuit: The city kept asking the museum when it was leaving, and museum officials kept saying, "Dunno." This went on for months, and at one point, the city tried to get the museum to sign a lease that said they'd be out by August 2010. If not, the museum could stay but only if it paid a penalty that could have gotten as big as $500,000 -- or more. Natinsky said this morning that the city requested the museum put up a $350,000 bond to cover potential penalties; LaPrelle refused.

And so the fight lingered well into early January of this year,  when city attorneys scheduled a meeting that museum officials decided was "a waste of time," as First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers wrote Jim. As Natinsky said, the suit, filed Tuesday, wasn't an all-of-the-sudden deal.

"It ramped up," he said. "It's our land. We need our land back. ... No hard feelings, but goodbye. Now, a little pride wounded, because I championed their cause. I wanted them to be here. I don't want them in Frisco."

As for LaPrelle and Tom Smith's allegations of a vendetta against the museum -- which is to say, recent visits from code compliance and food safety officers -- Natinsky said this morning that's strictly business. "And I had nothing to do with it, and I did not talk to the attorneys at all," he said. "I asked [Bowers], and he said prior to filing the suit, they check ownership, they check certificates of occupancy, and we discovered they didn't have a C.O. at all, so they've been illegally there. The other museums have C.O.s. And they prepare food onsite without a certificate [from the health department]. We haven't cited them for any of that. We're telling them, 'You've got to get your C.O. and health permit, and you can do it in time for your Valentine's Day event.'"

At this point, Natinsky said he discovered only last week this "disturbing" fact: "We've been paying their electric bill for 38 years, and we've never been reimbursed." I asked him how much that came to. He said he didn't know, but he's looking into it.

As for what'll happen if and when the museum doesn't get its trains out of Fair Park by August 1 -- and museum officials suggest they're not prepared for the move, not by a long shot -- Natinsky said he has no idea.

"They don't have any money. And I really don't know what's going to happen. They're in a very strange position: They've got a deal with Frisco they can't consummate because they don't have the money. They don't have the money to stay here. They don't have anything. They're like a train museum without a country. And it bothers me. We've gone beyond the call of duty in this case to work with them, and for them to call up the media and give an absolute one-sided response ... Did anyone at the museum mention the plans? Nobody mentioned the fact we funded the, did the engineers, did the tracks. Isn't that a little disingenuous?"

Below are his the plans for the museum, had it stayed at Fair Park.Fair Park Railroad Museum Layout Proposals

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky